Lost Password?

Create New Account

In Defense of Denethor: A Closer Look at Peter Jackson’s Misrepresentation

Chapter 1: In Defense of Denethor: A Closer Look at Peter Jackson’s Misrepresentation

by Cadiliniel

“In Defense of Denethor: A Closer Look at Peter Jackson’s Misrepresentation”
by Nia Edwards-Behi – with thanks to Justine, BoG girls etc.

I will be discussing the very many changes made to the character of Denethor in both The Two Towers Extended Edition and Return of the King. I am a Denethor fan, and I will freely and proudly admit to it, but, I am able to also admit that Denethor isn’t a particularly likeable man, that he wasn’t right in all his choices, and yes, even that he was flawed. But nonetheless, I do like him, and admire him for many reasons. He was strong, dignified, intelligent and honourable. I believe that in Denethor, Tolkien has given us one of the most psychologically complex characters in The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, on the other hand, has given us a pantomime villain, the bastard son of Ecthelion and bad scriptwriting. Am I bitter about such changes? Yes, of course, but I’ll try not to let that get into a look at what it is that makes the film version of Denethor so very different from the Denethor we have in the books.

I understand and acknowledge that changes must be made when adapting a book to film, even if only to compensate for the change in media. I can understand, albeit grudgingly, that say, Elves showed up at Helm’s Deep, or that Imrahil had to be left out. There are other changes that I despise, but that I must now accept as plot changes. The way I see it, the changes made to Denethor aren’t just compressions made for the benefit of time and plot, but complete and utter reversals of the character. There are glimmers of the true Denethor in the film (mostly thanks to the wonderful performance of John Noble), but it is not enough when most of the time he is nothing compared to the character of the books. Rather than tweak the character, the filmmakers have turned him into an over-simplified version of how the books portray him. So, what is it that makes the Denethor of the films so different to Denethor of the books? Here are some of the reasons as I see them.

Firstly, there is the matter of Gandalf. In my opinion there are some quite major changes made to Gandalf’s character that result in a very bad reflection on Denethor. It is Gandalf that the audience is used to receiving information from and that information is always taken as correct, because Gandalf is Gandalf – most definitely on our side of the battle. Now that we have finally arrived in Minas Tirith, a completely new place for Pippin and the audience, Gandalf is the one to inform us of what to expect. Therefore who are we to argue when he tells Pippin: “Lord Denethor, however, is not a King. He is a Steward only.” Well, of course I can’t deny that Denethor is not a King, but only a Steward? It’s the word ‘only’ that annoys me. It’s small, but we have been told about the importance of small things already, if I’m not mistaken. So, of course if he’s only a Steward, he can’t be that important. Couple this with Gandalf’s later use of the title as little more than an insult, “Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the King, Steward.” And the role of Steward does not come across well. If we must get political, I believe he does have the right, for starters, but more importantly than that, why use ‘Steward’ in the form of an insult? Not only is it frankly petty on the part of Gandalf, but also a slight against the office that has kept Gondor on her feet for so long. Gandalf is not nearly so derisive of the office in the book, he says of Denethor, in comparison with Théoden, that he is “…a man of far greater power and lineage, though he is not called a King.”

I don’t claim that Denethor and Gandalf should have been portrayed as best friends, because they’re not, but I would very much like to know what happened to the grudging respect and courtesy of the books? The so called ‘counsel’ that Gandalf brings to Denethor seems to be no more than a lecture of his apparent deficiencies as leader, he says “As Steward you are charged with defense of the City, where are Gondor’s armies?” in his most exasperated tone. Then in our first true meeting with Denethor (I shall talk about the Extended Edition of The Two Towers a little later), he starts off well enough, clearly grieving for his son, but it doesn’t take long for him to nose-dive into ranting villain mode. It is such a shame that one of the best opportunities for intelligent discussion had to be made into such a juvenile exchange of seething dislike. We don’t get to see that both Denethor and Gandalf are more than willing to talk, as Denethor says to Pippin in the book that he will only talk with him for an hour, because “It is all that I have to spare, for there is much else to heed”. He certainly doesn’t cause Gandalf to storm out like a moody child.

There is one scene in The Return of the King that I feel strongest about in regards to Denethor. It both upsets and infuriates me. I’m talking about SuperGandalf’s moment of being staff-happy, as Denethor grieves for the apparent loss of his son and land. To me, it is wrong on so many levels, and even more so perhaps as a slight to Gandalf’s character! He, who has learnt patience and pity from the Vala who placed such concepts in the foundations of the world, is hitting a grieving man – repeatedly – over the head. I understand there was a need for fast decisions. Of course, had the filmmakers kept the silent despair of the book, rather than have Denethor rant and rave and have his men leave their posts, there wouldn’t have been a need for fast decisions! But, alas, this is the choice they made, and this in itself is a disservice to Denethor’s character. This is not the way that the film or book Gandalf would go about things. Yes, we have seen him become angry and impatient before – how often has he called Pippin a fool? – but he does not resort to petty physical violence. There were alternatives to violence; why not use a spell? Or have Gandalf raise his voice as impressively as done in the Council of Elrond? Added to this I don’t think that the needless violence against Denethor as displayed here is in keeping with the so-called ‘spirit of the books’ that the filmmakers are so keen to show that they’re sticking to. What is worst about this scene is the reaction it provokes in the audience. Innumerable people I have heard or read them say how much they laughed when Denethor the wacky Steward was bashed round the head. It saddens me to think that such a noble and dignified character is being ridiculed in such a way. Similarly so the changes made to the Pyre scene, so perfect in the books and so cheapened in the film, show SuperGandalf ride in and knock Denethor from the Pyre, only to have Shadowfax kick him back on again! I don’t know why the filmmakers decided to include such violence towards Denethor in the film as it appears both needless and petty.

Before I talk of the changes made to Denethor himself in the films, I must say that I cannot commend highly enough John Noble’s performance. He does as well as anyone could with what the script gives him, and brings such subtleties to the part that the script did not seemingly allow. When you watch his performance closely, see how he slumps back into his chair once Gandalf leaves, see how he pauses before he answers Faramir with a dreaded “yes”. I would say that he understands the character far better than the filmmakers, or at least does so more clearly. In one interview he likens Denethor to a notable tragic figure, I quote: “He’s an amazing character, he’s probably the closest thing to King Lear…and I understand totally what happens when you click, you just start to make the wrong choices and paranoia sets in.” Why the script failed to portray this is a mystery to me, but I’d very much like to know the reasons.

We first meet Denethor in the Extended Edition of The Two Towers. The addition of the scene was quite vital to understanding more of Faramir’s past for the non-book audience. I was overjoyed at the sight of the family together, being such a fan of the three, and over all the scene showed the family dynamic well, particularly between the brothers. I do think that the scene subscribes a little too blatantly to the idea of Denethor as a power hungry zealot. I know that some people who have read the books do believe this too, and so they may if that is how they choose to interpret Denethor’s actions. I, and I know I am not alone, do not believe that Denethor was power hungry. He says he will step down if “the King should come again”. He is also described in the Unfinished Tales, ‘The Palantiri’: “He was proud but this was by no means merely personal; he loved Gondor and her people”. To me, that is not the description of a power hungry man. But one does not need to look to the Unfinished Tales to see this, as he in fact says in Return of the King, “Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor.” The words come from his own lips. I think that the scene was well done, in order to highlight the family dynamic that is so vital to developing Faramir’s character. The scene is far from perfect, however, as to me at least, the book never gave the impression that Denethor thought Faramir to be completely incompetent.

As I see it, this is the biggest problem with the film Denethor: we are given none of his background whatsoever, other than he is Steward, and a few kind words by Boromir in the first film. Denethor may be considered a minor character and therefore not worth spending time explaining his history. I think there are reasons that could have made it worthwhile to spend a little more time on his story. His use of the palantir could have made an effective demonstration of the control of Sauron over others, and that Denethor, and even to some extent Saruman, are both at least partly victims of Sauron’s deception. As a character Denethor may be minor, but the effect he has is important and it is therefore important to explain why he behaves as he does. They need not have spent excessive amounts of time on Denethor’s background either, as it could easily have been worked into the dialogue. There are many important points of Denethor’s past that aren’t even touched upon in the film, which is a shame, as all are vital to a proper understanding of his character. As a film audience we are never told of Denethor’s rivalry with Thorongil and the favouritism of his own father, which would clearly help explain his own attitudes towards Faramir. The rejected claim of Arvedui to the throne of Gondor is never explained, therefore the greater political danger and debateable validity of Aragorn’s claim is completely unknown to a film audience. It is doubtful Arvedui even exists in the movieverse. If we are to believe Legolas then Isildur was last King of Gondor, meaning that Stewards had ruled Gondor for 3000 years, rather than 1000 – giving further justification of Denethor’s reluctance to relinquish power! I do not know if calling Isildur the last King was intentional, or a mistake on the part of the filmmakers. The length of Denethor’s rule and the constant threat of Sauron’s gathering force and the threat of the Ring is never explained – surely the fact that Denethor has kept Gondor relatively safe for 40 years is to be commended? Add to that the threat of losing power all the time and surely it explains some of his paranoia? Though shown slightly, the massive effect that the death of Boromir had on him isn’t clearly portrayed, he is given a moment of sadness before he is over taken by his unfounded dislike for Gandalf. Saddest of all, to me, is that there is no mention whatsoever of Finduilas and how much her untimely death effected him. I can only hope that there should be mention of her in a Houses of Healing scene that will hopefully appear in the Extended Edition. I know not all of these things could be included because of time restraints, but all these things make Denethor the man he is. The biggest mistake of all in regards to giving Denethor a full character is ignoring entirely his use of the palantir. The palantir would have added the one object that heightens all the other factors of Denethor’s grief. There aren’t even passing references, which makes one wonder how then the “eyes of the White Tower” aren’t blind? He had been using the palantir for close to some 30 years, one would estimate, 30 years of mental strain that meant his country stayed as safe as possible. He sacrificed his own mental well being for the sake of his people. Some believe that Denethor was arrogant believing he could be a match for Sauron, yet again we need only look at the Unfinished Tales to know that he was more than able to use the palantir, and not even intending to make contact with Sauron: “The breaking strain of Denethor’s confrontation with Sauron must be distinguished from the general strain of using the Stone. The latter Denethor thought that he could endure (and not without reason); confrontation with Sauron almost certainly did not occur for many years, and was probably never originally contemplated by Denethor.” We see none of that in the film. From reports so far, there won’t be a palantir scene for Denethor in the Extended Edition, which is even according to John Noble himself, but this doesn’t mean that it won’t be referred to. I only hope that there is at least some reference, but I certainly won’t be holding my breath.

The worst thing for me about Denethor’s portrayal is that he is portrayed as an incompetent ruler. I loved the lighting of the beacons scene, I thought it was one of the most oddly moving in the film, but, why could Denethor not have ordered their lighting, as in the books? I don’t understand the purpose of having him scowl out of a window at the doing so, when he did order their lighting, before Gandalf and Pippin even arrive. When a defensive soldier claims that the situation is “as the Lord Denethor has foreseen”, Gandalf corrects him, “Foreseen and done nothing!” Wrong. He foresaw and did all he thought he could – he sent for help and was strengthening the outer walls of Pelennor and calling as many men as possible to Minas Tirith. Gondor’s armies were already there, but they were already fighting, at Pelagir and Cair Andros and who knows how many unnamed places. What’s more, is that Denethor does call for Rohan’s aid. The quarrel that seems to exist between Gondor and Rohan in the film is suggested to be Denethor’s fault because he did not send to aid to Rohan – this is despite the fact that Théoden was under Saruman’s spell and undoubtedly did not ask for help. Like the beacons, it makes no sense other than to subtract from Denethor as a leader. No one seems to accuse the Rohirrim of being unprepared at Helm’s Deep, and no one seems to accuse Théoden of being selfish when he does not send for aid. I can understand if they did not have time to highlight the fact that Denethor was in fact running his country quite well, but I don’t understand why they had to make a point of portraying the opposite.

Of Denethor in the scene that I discussed earlier, in which Gandalf decides to take more direct action with the Steward; I can understand the need to portray the effect of Faramir’s apparent death and the arrival of Sauron’s armies on Denethor, but again where is the poor man’s dignity? His reaction is to shout at his men to “Flee! Flee for your lives!” It clearly says in the books that “Denethor rose and looked on the face of his son and was silent.” I think this is an appropriate point to discuss the matter of interpretation. To me, in the book, Denethor initially deals with his grief with dignified restraint. However, others believe he is already irreversibly mad by this point. Clearly, not everyone is going to agree on a point of view here, which is why adaptations vary. I believe that the filmmakers take the scene and change Denethor’s attitude completely, rather than provide a more balanced portrayal. They of all people should be well aware that they are catering for a book-audience too. Denethor certainly does not tell his men to abandon their posts, rather he lets them continue in what he see as their futile fight. Denethor asks in the book, “Why do the fools fly?”. In my opinion this clearly displays that despair is driving Denethor, not cowardice as is implied. Again, we are denied the opportunity of seeing some of Denethor’s saddest and most poignant moments.

There is also Denethor’s dialogue. I know a lot of what Denethor says in the film is also said in the book, but the point is, under completely different circumstances. His tirade about Aragorn being the “last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship” is taken from the moment of emotional intensity of the Pyre scene. They have taken Denethor’s words, twisted them and placed them in the relative calm of Gandalf’s arrival. The most obvious example of this is his outburst in the film, “The Rule of Gondor is mine, and no other’s!” It’s a shame to see the filmmakers so conveniently leave out six little words that make all the difference, “Unless the King should come again.”

Then there is his talk with Faramir. Again, I will freely acknowledge the time constraints of a film and that a conversation in the book that was spread over two days did need to be shortened. But, all the screenwriters have done is taken anything that Denethor says against Faramir, taken it out of context, and put all those occasions together so that the effect is concentrated and that Denethor seems to be doing little else than taking a moment to insult his son. There is none of the strategic implications of losing Osgiliath nor either is Faramir as forward with his father as he is in the book, and as he should be. It is heartbreaking to watch, as a fan of Faramir, as Denethor treats his son so badly, but to watch as a fan of Denethor it is also quite upsetting because yet again we are seeing the shrewd mind so reduced to mere pettiness. Of course, Denethor does not always treat Faramir well, but a little more subtlety would not have gone amiss!

The scene where Denethor feasts as his son rides out towards death is now infamous as the ‘tomato’ scene. I appreciate the filmmaker’s attempts at symbolism, and the singing intercut with Faramir’s charge is quite beautiful, but it simply does not work. The red of the tomato juice etc. is a symbol of the blood being spilt of Faramir’s men, but surely they realised that to the vast majority of the audience a scene like that is only going to incite more ridicule aimed at Denethor? This is not the man of dignity that the books portray. This scene also portrays Denethor as a greedy man when he was far from being so. He even slept in his armour so he would not become soft and have the need to become self indulgent! Again, the filmmakers appear to have taken a scene in which Denethor acts most civilly, in which he sends for food and drink for Gandalf and Pippin, and made it into a scene with a completely different implication.

On the matter of dignity, the Pyre scene, though good, was very much flawed. It was nice to see some of the repentant Denethor; I was pleased that the line “Do not take my son from me!” was retained and that Denethor has that last moment of eye contact with Faramir before he dies. This may have redeemed Denethor somewhat, but it was very much imbalanced with the over-dramatising and Gandalf’s increased participation. In the book Denethor is the epitome of dignified pride, “Then Denethor leaped upon the table, and standing there wreathed in fire and smoke he took up the staff of his stewardship that lay at his feet and broke it on his knee. Casting the pieces into the blaze he bowed and laid himself on the table, clasping the palantir with both hands upon his breast.” Why, therefore, did the filmmakers decide to cheapen such an emotional scene of the book, for an absolutely ridiculous, not to mention scientifically impossible, scene, where Denethor takes a running jump off the end of the Citadel. He has to run out of Rath Dinen and all the way to the end of the Citadel whilst on fire. I know that adrenaline can keep people going, but that’s irrelevant if your legs have been burnt off! Simple, yet oh so effective emotion is replaced by yet another wide shot of the battle. Yes, impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the emotional impact of the Pyre.

In the books Denethor never seems to lose control over his situation. One could argue for hours about whether or not Denethor was mad, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. He never appears to be controlled by anyone else – it is he who makes the conscious decision to light the Pyre, and so forth. In the film, he is literally a raving mad man, rather than the calculating, even cold, man of the book. What’s more, because it is Shadowfax that knocks Denethor onto the Pyre, it barely seems like his own choice anyway! Gandalf is far more involved with Denethor’s death than he should be. It seems to me that emotional intensity is once again substituted for flashy images.

Again, it is sad to hear of those who actually laughed at this scene. Whatever Tolkien wished to portray with Denethor, even if it is in a slightly negative light, he was at least once a great man and Tolkien wrote him with respect. I don’t think he’d ever wish for people to laugh at the death of any of his characters.

I know there are many people who dislike comparing the books to the films, and prefer to think of them as two separate entities. I can understand this entirely, because when I think about the difference, I do see how the film could have been so much better had it stuck to the books. Some may say that pantomime Denethor works in the context of the films. It does, if the filmmakers wanted to make a mediocre, clichéd fantasy film. But they were adapting Tolkien, and no one is so black and white. It would not have taken much additional time to portray Denethor in a more sympathetic way – all that was required was changes to his dialogue. I also appreciate that Peter Jackson was making a film, and that film had to make money; changes had to be made. I know that characters in books can never be exactly the same when they are portrayed on film, but it is nonetheless upsetting when a character that one feels so strongly about is changed. I’m sure some people I speak to can think “It’s only fictional, so what does it matter?”, and fair enough. But to me, the work of Tolkien is of such a nature that it is possible to become emotionally attached to these characters, to the extent of actually caring about them. Because of this, to see Denethor, one of my favourite characters, portrayed so differently from how he truly is, certainly evokes true sadness at what is simply a complete misportrayal.

I would have liked to have concluded by outlining the reasons for such changes, but I can only think of one, rather stupid reason. That is, the lack of a clear, physical villain in Return of the King. It is strange that both Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers had a conflicted ‘villain’ of sorts, Boromir and Gollum, respectively, yet the filmmakers did not think to fill this role with Denethor for Return of the King. Saruman was taken care of at the beginning of the film (or rather, should have been), and so they needed someone other than the floating eye to be the villain, so, who better than the mad Steward of Gondor? If that is the reason, then I think the filmmakers were just plain lazy if they could not portray Sauron as the only evil that he was. Other than that, I can think of no other reasoning, except for perhaps a personal dislike on part of the filmmakers of Denethor as a character. I don’t say that everyone should like Denethor, nor do I mean to convince everyone that they should – all I say is that they could at least show him the respect and dignity he deserves.